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Several state news organizations have asked for what are clearly public documents from the state Public Service Commission. The commission’s response? It has filed a lawsuit against those news organizations.

This represents a troubling pattern of behavior on the part of public agencies. The agencies claim they sue in order to get the courts to tell them what documents they are required to turn over. But this action forces anyone who makes a request for public documents – not just media organizations – to retain legal counsel, often at considerable expense.

The case in point involves emails sent and received by one commissioner, Roger Koopman. Koopman has been embroiled in internal disputes within the all-Republican commission. And some of the emails in question were leaked to a right-wing media website that posted them online. That prompted other news organizations – the Billings Gazette, Yellowstone Public Radio and the Great Falls Tribune – to request all the emails associated with the controversy.

This isn’t quantum physics. The courts have long established that emails sent and received by public officials using government computers and email services are public documents and must be turned over on request from the public. State open government law requires public officials to balance the right to privacy with their obligations to hand over public documents. And Koopman maintains that three of the emails leaked to NorthWest Liberty News were personal in nature and should be exempted from public disclosure. These are simple determinations to make and the commission does not need a district court judge to make those determinations.

Let’s call this what it is. The net effect of dragging these requests into court is to discourage requests for public documents. Any member of the public has a right to see public documents. But not everyone has the resources to hire a lawyer to get those documents – nor should they have to.

The Montana Constitution and the statutes that emanate from it are clear. Government is to be transparent in all its actions. All meetings are to be open to the public and what are clearly public documents must be produced when requested.

Let’s put the “public” back into the Public Service Commission: rescind the court action and hand over the emails in question.

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Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

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